Changing Shirts, Fleeing Traffic: 'American Idol' Top 11 Talk Adjusting to Singing From Home

Makayla Phillips American Idol

Makayla Phillips performs on American Idol.

There's no way around it: performing in your bedroom alone, or in the living room with your family giving silent stage directions is super weird. Just ask the semi-finalists on American Idol, who had to sing from home for the second week on Sunday night's two-hour episode, where nine of their virtual peers were sent home... again?

It was a rough night for Kimmy Gabriela, Franklin Boone, Olivia Ximines, Aliana Jester, Faith Becnel, Nick Merico, Lauren Spencer-Smith, Cyniah Elise and DeWayne Crocker Jr., who were eliminated, even as Makayla Phillips dodged a bullet and scored the only available save this season.

Billboard hopped on the phone with the top 11 on Tuesday (May 5) -- along with several other reporters -- to find out what the singers did to tweak their homebound performances after lessons learned from the previous week. We also asked some of the eliminated contestants what it felt like to only get a virtual hug rather than the traditional teary group embrace when their card wasn't pulled.

Check out their answers below.

Tweaking things a bit

Arthur Gunn really nailed the "Homeward Bound" theme with John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," and he said that one of the challenges this season is having to be your own sound, lighting and tech person (with some help from your family, of course). He said he got more confident with the camera and lighting the second time, realizing that "this is how we do it" now. Just Sam is totally alone at home, so she had to figure out how to connect with the camera better while also bringing the vocal heat. Without the studio audience to feed off of, she said the singers have to "create that energy for ourselves." So, how does she get amped? Sith the mantra, "You got this Sam! You made the top 10 let's do it!"

Also, in addition to learning all the technical things, she had one very simple tweak to her routine: "I am not doing heels the next time," she said, describing how she kept stepping on and tripping over all the patch cords on the floor due to her uncomfortable shoes. Louis Knight sang Coldplay's "In My Place" and he felt comfortable in his place with his family all around, and the Zoom meetings with the show's producers and tech team have made him feel like a home-brew audio engineer. "It's been an incredible learning process," he said.

Soccer player Grace Leer took a chance singing "Over the Rainbow," but she was willing to suffer through judge Lionel Richie's questions about her song choice because the sentimental song reminds her of her home in Danville, California -- not far from Disneyland -- and Nashville, thanks to previous covers by Martina McBride and LeAnn Rimes. "I need to play the same way if I'm in front of 1,000 people or there's nobody there," she said of her athletic mindset going into the second live round. She focused on conveying her emotions and connection to the song through her iPhone, saying she imagines it's not unlike being in a recording studio trying to sell a performance to nobody on a song that will hopefully reach millions when it's released.

Dillon James might have learned the biggest lesson of all. For his version of the Beatles' "Yesterday" he took things indoors this time, after not really thinking about all the elements out of his control like "cars passing by and the outside world distracting you" during his backyard performance last week. Julia Gargano was behind the piano on the first live show, but after watching most of her peers perform without instruments, she just focused on her vocals for piano man Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind." She said learning all the technical aspects of setting up a performance is "getting us ready for real life for people who want to be successful musicians who are really busy."

The answer was way simpler for Jonny West when we asked what he changed: his shirt. "Because I didn't want everybody to think I only had one shirt," he said. Plus, he switched around the lights in his space to add a touch of red, because, well, "I wanted to show that side of me that really likes red." Makayla Phillips got the save and "definitely" felt the pressure of having to prove herself now that she earned another chance. One thing she focused on this time around was just having fun, but also remembering that the viewers at home just want to see the "raw you" in a sentimental, emotional form, which is why she picked Miranda Lambert's touching "The House That Built Me."

Saying a long-distance goodbye

One of the hallmarks of Idol is the emotional farewells to contestants who've been through the crucible with you. In the coronavirus-tweaked season 18, though, just like everything else, that parting has an extra dose of sweet sorrow because it has to be done virtually. Olivia Ximines went out after her performance of Billie Eilish's "Bad Guy," but she said her fellow contestants were anything but. "We have a group chat and after we got eliminated there were a lot of sweet messages," from the others who made it through, making it "really heartwarming" to know that they still care about each other.

She said they're all still connecting on socials, leaving supportive comments on each other's feeds and "hyping each other up." Nick Merico said it was just "surreal" when the cameras and lights went off and he was all alone at home. He took a minute to himself and then talked to those who didn't make it before personally congratulating everyone in the top 11. It definitely felt weird to be at home and not be able to hug everyone and celebrate according to Kimmy Gabriela, who exited after the appropriately titled "Leave Me Lonely" by Ariana Grande.

"We do have our group chat and we're all in contact and while we are not part of the show anymore, we still feel like we are a part of a family," she said. "I'm sad for me, but I'm so happy for my friends and I think that's the main emotion I was feeling I was just feeling joy for all of my friends who made it through."


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